It takes some effort to reach this barrier isle and national seashore at the southern end of the Georgia coast, practically into Florida—unless you’ve got your own boat, you’ll have to take a 45-minute ferry ride from St. Mary’s. Once you get there, you may be surprised to find its gleaming sands deserted. What kind of a national seashore is this?
But that’s all part of Cumberland Island’s subtle charm. Originally a cotton plantation and then a summer retreat for the Carnegies, Cumberland Island has been mostly uninhabited since 1972, with only a few private owners remaining in clustered compounds. Over the years, the wilderness has gradually closed in, until the main road through the interior seems a mere tunnel through a vinedraped canopy of live oaks, cabbage palms, magnolia, holly, red cedar, and pine. Only 300 people are allowed on the island at any given time, many of them overnight guests at the island’s only lodging, the stately turn-of-the-century Greyfield Inn. (There are also two bare-bones campgrounds for visitors who prefer roughing it.) Although the island has a few historic sites—a restored Carnegie mansion, a tiny African-American meetinghouse—most visitors tend to be nature lovers, fond of hiking (there are over 50 miles/81km of hiking trails), bicycling along the old car-riage roads (rent bikes at the Sea Camp Dock), and kayaking through the silent salt marshes.
Cumberland’s sloping 16-mile-long (26km) beach isn’t just a bland strip of powdery sand, like some manicured oceanfront resort. Little meadows nestle among the dunes, creeks cut their way to the sea from freshwater ponds, and tidal mud flats glisten. The beach runs the entire length of the island, affording plenty of space for beachgoers to find their own patch of secluded sand. It’s not a place to come for high-octane watersports, but the shell hunting is superb, especially early in the morning after a storm. The waters are relatively shallow and calm for swimming, although there are no lifeguards. Nor are there snack bars, showers, or changing rooms—it’s just you, the sand, and a wideopen sky.
In late spring and summer, in fact, birds far outnumber humans on Cumberland Island. Bring your binoculars, because this is a major destination on the Atlantic flyway, with more than 335 species showing up throughout the year to nest on the tidal flats or build their nests behind the dunes. (Please respect cordoned-off beach areas in season.) Inland you’ll also find alligators, armadillos, raccoons, deer, wild turkeys, and loggerhead turtles, as well as a herd of nearly 300 wild horses that graze on the marsh grasses.
Those who return to Cumberland Island year after year do so for its unhurried pace, a lifestyle attuned to the rhythms of nature. It’s not a place to visit in a hurry, barging in and then charging out. Give yourself a day or two to slow down, breathe the salt air, and get sand between your toes—you’ll be glad you did.